Redemption seems to be a key element in most religions. Many religions believe that if someone does something wrong then they need to be forgiven and become a better person; in other words, they need to do good so that they can redeem themselves of all their wrongdoing. While redemption is prominent in Buddhism and Abrahamic religions, it is especially important in both Islam and Christianity. For this reason, it is surprising to me that a lot of Western film, which is heavily influenced by Christianity, may discuss religion, but very rarely truly explores redemption in an interesting or profound way.
Something that is constantly aggravating to me is that most characters who are redeemed are then killed tragically after their final good act. This creates a false understanding of the importance of redemption in religion and what it truly means to be redeemed. A lot of pop culture has evil characters commit their final act of redemption and then die because, I think, they are basing what redemption is on Christ’s death and sacrifice. In Christianity, it’s believed that Christ’s suffering, torture, and then death redeemed the world of sin, allowing humanity to enter Heaven and be with God. However, if this is truly what writers are looking at when they need an example of redemption, they’re actually kind of missing the point. Christ was without sin, meaning that Christ was a perfect sacrifice to redeem humanity. Christ wasn’t trying to find redemption for himself. He didn’t need it. He was saving humanity. Redemption, for regular humans, as understood in Christianity, is about becoming a better person. It’s about recognizing that you did something wrong, repenting, and then trying to make choices to live a better life. In some ways it is also about paying your debts for wrongdoing. For example, if you steal something, you would need to return it, apologize for stealing, face any civil consequences for the theft, and attempt to live a life where you do not steal.
Redemption is really a truly human thing. In some ways it is the constant struggle to be a good person while trying to avoid sin. However, the more interesting redemption story is the one of someone who was evil and committed many heinous acts and then decides to repentant. Watching a formerly evil character go through the process of trying to redeem themselves is extremely compelling. Sadly, Western media gives us only a few examples of this.
First, you have characters like Snape from the Harry Potter series. There is some debate over whether Snape has truly redeemed himself or was just still obsessed with Lily, but either way Snape is an interesting redemption example. Snape clearly hates Harry, because Harry is living proof that Lily chose James over him, but Snape still tries to save Harry all the time and works with Dumbledore to defeat Voldemort. It might just be because of Lily that Snape does any good acts, but you could argue that, even if for the wrong reasons, Snape is actively trying to be a better person. That’s one of the things that made his character so interesting.
Many other evil characters, however, are offered redemption and refuse it. They are then usually punished for this with death. Harry encourages Voldemort to repent, but he doesn’t repent, and he dies. Saruman is encouraged to repent after he joins Sauron, but refuses and inevitably dies. In these cases, redemption is turned into a way to just show how evil the character is, and so the offer of redemption doesn’t carry as much weight as it could if we got a genuine redemption character arc.
There are a few characters that we do see some genuine redemption arcs, particularly in comic books. In the MCU, as well as the comics, Black Widow is shown to have once been an awful person. In the movies she mentions having “red in her ledger”. Black Widow struggles with being good, but we see her actively pursuing what is good and attempting to find redemption for her sins. We also see this with both Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, again both in the comic books and in the MCU. In the comic books Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch both join with their father, Magneto, to destroy all non-mutants. However, after many confrontations with the X-Men, the two realize that their father’s path is the wrong one and join up with the Avengers in an effort to find some sort of redemption. In the MCU, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch join up with Ultron to get revenge on Tony Stark for what his weapons did to their country. But after Scarlet Witch learns that Ultron wants to kill all humans, they turn against him and genuinely try to repent for their actions. Scarlet Witch even joins the Avengers. With these characters we get a clear look at what a good redemption arc looks like. These characters we see truly struggle with their path just like any average person, but still consistently work toward good.
You would think, with redemption being such a key theme in Christianity, that it would be something more thoroughly explored in pop culture. But instead we rarely get a true redemption story that really explores a character attempting to redeem themselves. Often we either have characters refuse a chance for redemption or committing one final good act before dying, so we never really get to explore their stories. Redemption is an important theme in religion as well as a very real human experience so it’s important to portray it authentically. Everyone deserves a chance at redemption no matter what they have done. If our media never shows us a good, or authentic, redemption arc, then no one will get that message. They will think they either can’t be redeemed or should be able to do one ultimate act that fixes everything. That’s not how redemption works and that’s not how the real world works. We deserve a real portrayal of redemption in our media.